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Long-COVID devastating lives according to WHO

Long COVID is “devastating” the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of people, and wreaking havoc on health systems and economies, WHO director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned as he urged countries to launch “immediate” and “sustained” efforts to tackle the “very serious” crisis.

The world has never been in a better position to end the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is also “very clear” that many of those infected by the virus, which first emerged in China in late 2019, are still experiencing “prolonged suffering”, the WHO chief said.

COVID has killed almost 6.5 million people and infected more than 600 million. The WHO estimates that 10% to 20% of survivors have been left with mid- and long-term symptoms such as fatigue, breathlessness and cognitive dysfunction.

“While the pandemic has changed dramatically due to the introduction of many lifesaving tools, and there is light at the end of the tunnel, the impact of long COVID for all countries is very serious and needs immediate and sustained action equivalent to its scale,” Tedros said, writing for the Guardian.

“Early in the pandemic, it was important for overwhelmed health systems to focus all of their life saving efforts on COVID-19 patients presenting with acute infection,” he said. “However, it is critical for governments to invest long-term in their health system and workers and make a plan now for dealing with long COVID.

“This plan should encompass: providing immediate access to antivirals to patients at high risk of serious disease, investing in research and sharing new tools and knowledge as they’re identified to prevent, detect and treat patients more effectively. It also means supporting patients’ physical and mental health as well as providing financial support for those who are unable to work.”

The intervention from the head of the UN agency comes as the Guardian launches a major new global series on the condition, Living with long Covid.

Stark research published this month suggests that as many as 17 million people in Europe alone may have experienced long COVID symptoms during the first two years of the pandemic.

The modelling also suggests that women are twice as likely as men to experience long COVID, and the risk increases dramatically among severe infections needing hospitalisation, the report said. One in three women and one in five men are likely to develop long COVID, according to the report.

Tedros said there were “five key elements” necessary to drive forward efforts in tackling long COVID. Countries need to listen to patients, use their “first-hand knowledge” to shape long COVID policies, and collect better data to understand the condition better. Sharing of information between countries must be improved to “quickly close knowledge gaps” worldwide.

He also called for “equitable access” to COVID tests, treatments and vaccines to avoid infections in the first place and thereby cut the risk of long COVID, “sustained investment” in long COVID scientific research, and prompt “multi-disciplinary care” for long COVID patients.

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